Editor's note: This piece ran in the Wanganui Chronicle as an opinion piece last week.
As a general rule, I’m not fond of the word expert. I feel it’s used too often, especially among self-proclaimed experts. At very least the designation should only be bestowed by a third party. In modern, Western culture, universities have taken on that role: A Masters Degree implies one has achieved a certain level of “mastery” of a subject, while a PhD implies the highest level of mastery, ie expertise.
When I was in the initial stages of my doctoral research, my supervisor said something to the extent: “When you’re finished you will be the world expert on your topic.” At the time I was more intimidated than inspired. Now I’m more-or-less indifferent. What good is being an expert in a field in which few people appear interested?
Recently I have ventured from my field of study and into a realm in which I am most assuredly not an expert. That realm is democracy, and if you have read previous opinion pieces, you’ll know I have tried to carefully construct logical, sequential arguments based on observable phenomenon, simple data, and the work of real experts on any given topic. That I am allowed back on the Opinion page appears to indicate that at least a few readers appreciate this approach to promoting democracy in Whanganui.
This time, however, we leave the River City to discuss topics more central to discussions happening in Wellington, Washington D.C., and the netherworld of corporate secret negotiations. The topic of this column is the ethereal Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA), but first a word on the timely topic of asset sales. (Remember to vote!)
While not an expert on asset sales, I do rank myself highly on the common sense scale. Considering this, I subscribe to the following simple argument I have heard in a number of places: If an asset performs well (returning an acceptable or better rate), it would appear too valuable to sell. On the other hand, if an asset is underperforming, the selling price would be so low that the state would hardly make anything from the sale.
Put another way, if private money considers public assets so potentially profitable as to purchase them, wouldn’t that expert financial insight be a signal to government that any given asset is too valuable to sell? Right-leaning politicians are always on about “trusting the wisdom of markets.” So why not trust that wisdom and hold on to those profitable assets for the people?
Globally, asset sales have been used as a technique to transfer public wealth into private hands. From what little the public has been able to glimpse of the TPPA, it appears to do the same but in different ways.
From what I have been able to gather, the TPPA is a trade agreement between nations in the general vicinity of the Pacific Ocean that is being negotiated in secret. As such, who could possibly be an expert on the topic except those insiders already sworn to secrecy?
Fortunately for democracy, some material from the TPPA has been leaked, including a 95-page excerpt published by WikiLeaks in Mid-November. Following that leak, the Herald (14 November, NZ WikiLeaks Scoop) reported that information in the excerpt includes disputes between New Zealand and US negotiators on issues of internet freedom, industrial innovation, ownership of endemic plants and animals, and, near and dear to my heart, access to affordable medicines.
(Before I go on, I would love to see a Maori perspective on “ownership of plants and animals” as related to the TPPA on this Opinion page.)
From the Herald, “A large section reveals the battle between the US pharmaceutical lobby and countries such as New Zealand that want to continue to buy cheaper generic medicines.”
In order to dissect this sentence we need to know a couple of facts: 1) the utmost duty of a corporation is to return profits to its shareholders; 2) the US – where corporations have used lobbyists to sculpt health care policy – has the most expensive health care system in the world while ranking close to 40th in performance by the World Health Organization; 3) New Zealand health care remains reasonably priced in part due to the ability to bulk buy generic medicines.
Using the numbers above in a mathematical equation: 1 - 3 = 2. In other words, if pharmaceutical corporations have their way through the TPPA, NZ health care will more closely resemble that of the US.
What this means for Whanganui is that our already strapped health services would become even more so. For example, the funds now available to pay a doctor may have to be shuffled to cover the increased costs of medicines. Along with the dollars vacuumed away, we would lose a valuable human being who lives in our city, owns a home, pays rates, and buys local products. Every dollar associated with that doctor’s salary would be wisked away to New York, San Francisco, or Hartford. We lose, they win.
I reckon it is our democratic duty to do our best to resist corporate influence globally and locally, but we need to do so proactively. Once the deal has been done, it won’t easily be undone.
Nelson Lebo, is a consultant, educator, and advocate for affordable health care.